Honoring the unsung hero: The role of the hospice and palliative care social worker

March 29, 2024
4 min
Rosie Gaston, MSW, LICSW, APHSW-C

As I reflect on my time as a hospice and palliative care social worker, I am reminded of the invaluable lessons I learned during my final year of graduate school. It was during my internship at a hospital, working within the palliative care team. I was fortunate to have a powerhouse supervisor who shared a piece of wisdom that I continue to pass on to the social workers I mentor today. She emphasized the importance of crafting an elevator speech: “If you can't articulate how you can help, how will the interdisciplinary team or your patients know when to seek your support?"

This seasoned social worker recognized a prevalent challenge—both among professionals and the community—of understanding the nuanced role of a hospice and palliative care social worker. In the realm of social work, there exists a common misconception that our role revolves solely around addressing financial resources, housing, or safety concerns. While these are foundation roles of our profession, the scope has evolved significantly. My mentor emphasized the importance of shining a light on our competencies and the value we bring.

I may be biased, but I believe that social workers are the unsung heroes within healthcare settings. We are summoned to navigate situations that cannot be treated with a medication or procedure – instances where emotions are so big they overflow the confines of hospital rooms. Our teams often ask for our support in understanding “why.” So, we delve into the intricacies of human experience and strive to understand the underlying motivations behind patients' decisions, fears, and hopes. We navigate and support challenging family dynamics, which are present for a majority during these stressful times. We hold a compassionate space and bear witness to the experience of death, dying, and grief. We fight to address unmet needs with the (often) little resources we have available. We turn discouragement into advocacy, both at the organizational and political levels, as this is ingrained in our professional DNA as agents of change. We walk into spaces that many run from.

At the core of our profession lie ethical principles such as integrity, social justice, dignity, and service. Hence, we focus on educating patients about their options and empowering them to make decisions according to their own wishes and values. Particularly during this time as choices often become limited, we act as microphones, amplifying their voices and ensuring that their preferences are prioritized above all else.

So, as you can see, we're not just resource givers; we're advocates, educators, listeners, and companions during one of life's most challenging chapters.

I can picture new social workers agreeing with everything stated above while also asking, “how do I convey the breadth and depth of this role into a concise elevator pitch?” It's not easy, but it's so important, especially when introducing oneself to patients and their loved ones who may be unfamiliar with hospice and palliative care social work.

My elevator speech typically goes something like this: "I am a professional problem solver who specializes in providing comprehensive psychosocial support. My role addresses a wide spectrum of needs, ranging from acquiring practical assistance like caregiving and meal support, to facilitating difficult conversations and offering education about what lies ahead. I am here to provide emotional support and counseling to both you (the patient) and those you love the most. Whether it's exploring coping mechanisms, connecting with additional mental health support, or simply sitting together and saying nothing at all. My goal is to be there for you every step of the way."

To patients, loved ones, and healthcare professionals, my hope is that this blog has shed some light on the vital role of a hospice and palliative care social worker. For those new to the field of social work, welcome! I'm so glad you have joined this meaningful profession and I hope you found this helpful as you embark on your career. And to my fellow seasoned social workers, who have tirelessly served on the front lines, I hope you feel acknowledged as the humble heroes that you are. Your dedication and compassion impact countless lives every day. It’s an honor and privilege to be amongst you.

To learn more about the role of a hospice and palliative care social worker, please visit: https://www.mypcnow.org/fast-fact/role-of-the-hospice-and-palliative-care-social-worker/.

To learn more about Rosie and her business, A Better Ending, visit her website